Cha, the upscale version of the Portland's popular Cha! Cha! Cha! mini-chain of Mexican restaurants, has been open almost a year. A nice renovation of a vacant antique mall at Northwest 21st Avenue and Davis Street, the spacious restaurant has an inviting patio, lots of light and an edgy Aztec-minimalist decor. I'll admit, it hadn't registered on my radar at all until a recent home-kitchen renovation found me eating a lot of meals in restaurants; a friend said it was one of her favorite spots for lunch.

Cha's lunch menu is a fine deal. Unlike at Cha! Cha! Cha!, you sit down and a nice waitress brings a bowl of zingy green salsa and some crisp blue corn chips. A plump burrito with your choice of meats runs $6, as do two tacos with a cup of the day's soup or a mixed green salad. Nothing changed my life, but it was all perfectly good—better than plenty of food I've had in Mexico—and served with kindness.

I returned for dinner twice to see what else was going on. The first night we were there, maybe five tables were occupied; on Cinco de Mayo the kitchen was slammed. Despite the divergent circumstances, the food was pretty much the same on both visits.

Cha's dinner menu goes in two directions. On the simple side, you'll find appetizers, tacos and enchiladas—standard Mexican beach-town fare. The best thing we tasted was the nachos al pastor, tortilla chips layered with crispy-salty bits of pork, black beans, pico de gallo, guacamole and chipotle sour cream ($8)—a fine accompaniment to somethingz alcoholic. A platter of three tacos ($11), while not copious, was also simple and solid, especially with carnitas or carne asada filling.

The kitchen loses its way when it reaches the entrees portion of the menu. The bar's been raised significantly in Portland over the past few years when it comes to Mexican food, thanks to restaurants like Nuestra Cocina, Autentica and Trebol. Cha doesn't have nearly the vision of those guys: The entree descriptions sound OK, but what comes out of the kitchen—no matter what the dish—is basically a piece of overcooked protein surrounded by vegetables that are certainly seasonal somewhere on the globe. The fajitas de comal ($14) have an oddly sweet, teriyaki-like flavor; poblano de mariscos ($14) is a cruise-ship dish of frozen bits of seafood covered with a bland cream sauce. The sauce for the mole poblano ($13) is billed as "handcrafted," but it's a dead ringer for the jarred black mole you can find in a good supermarket.

The bill also adds up fast if you focus on main courses. Stick to the drinks from the fine bartenders (the cucumber margarita, $7, is delish), and order appetizers. Salud!


Cha Taqueria & Bar, 305 NW 21st Ave., 295-4077. Lunch and dinner 11 am-10 pm Monday-Thursday (open until midnight starting in June), 11 am-1 am Friday; brunch, lunch and dinner 10 am-1 am Saturday, 10 am-10 pm Sunday. $-$$ Inexpensive to moderate.